The mountain had changed.
Dave didn't know when or how it had happened, and that was scariest of all. He'd gone climbing early that morning, when the first rays from the sun had pierced through the pink clouds and made everything look warm, inviting, and comforting. He had needed that. Had needed to clear his head, feel at peace, even for just a moment.
But now the mountain was cold and harsh to the touch, so unlike the way it had felt beneath his hands just mere hours ago. Or was it longer than that? He couldn't tell the time, because the sky had turned a dull gray, and the sun was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of nature that always surrounded him when climbing had been replaced by silence, so heavy and unnatural that it made his head hurt.
He was on a ridge, close to the summit — and that was all wrong, too. It hadn't looked like this before. Had it happened gradually, was that why he hadn't noticed until now? His gear was gone as well, hands as empty as his surroundings.
"I always said this was a dangerous hobby to have."
Or maybe he wasn't alone, after all. He turned around, seeking out the owner of that voice even though he'd know it anywhere.
Nelson stood there, just a few steps behind him.
Dave swallowed, forcing a smile before replying. "I can think of more dangerous hobbies to have, if you catch my drift." His voice sounded oddly hollow and indistinct, completely different from the way Nelson's had rang out.
Time seemed to crawl as Dave waited for an answer, or even just an acknowledgement of the bad joke. "Nelson?" he finally prompted, not surprised when that also failed to elicit a response.
He closed his eyes for a few moments, trying to ignore the creeping suspicion that he had gone and died. Again. Only this time no one would be bringing him back.
When he opened them again Nelson was gone.
Keeping track of time proved impossible. It wasn't a case of an overcast sky blocking the sun, but rather that the sun simply didn't exist. The light and the grayness above him remained constant, even though he was certain he'd been lingering for at least a day. Maybe longer, it sure felt that way — just not in the ways it should. There was no hunger, fatigue, cold, or any other physical needs or sensations. The only thing he had was a throbbing headache, which was a pretty crappy thing to have remained.
Most of all he felt alone. If this was death, then it was completely different from the brief moment he'd previously experienced. That had been nothing but a glimpse, sure, but there still should've been at least some similarities between the two. He'd seen a mountain, and now he was on one, but aside from that they had nothing in common.
So, possibly not death. Coma? The Nelson he'd seen, standing beside him on the mountain, was probably as unreal as this sunless place — but his voice might be a different story. That could've come from somewhere outside, reaching in to him. That'd explain why Nelson hadn't reacted to the things Dave had said; because he hadn't truly said them, at least not in any reality that mattered.
It was a decent hypothesis, though if it were true he should've been hearing a lot more, shouldn't he? Why would Nelson's voice be the only one to break through? He'd been closer to real, actual death than any of them, could that be it? Or maybe the answer was a lot simpler than that, however absurd it seemed. And to think he'd decided to go climbing as a way to clear his head and stop thinking. Now here he was, forced to confront it all.
"You broke your wrist the first time you went climbing. Yet you never stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, the universe was trying to tell you something?"
The relief was so great that it even blocked out the pain from his head. He turned and aimed a big smile at Nelson, however pointless it may be. It felt so good to see him.
"You never told me about that. And I don't want you to think I was prying — I saw it 'cause I needed to look up a few things in your medical record when I was double-checking your test results, that's all. They look good, by the way. Your tests, I mean."
The smile widened. Nelson had no business with any of those things, of course. "I don't even wanna know who you bribed or talked into letting you see those, but thanks. Thanks for looking out for me."
"In fact, they look way too good for you to be like this. A concussion doesn't usually lead to the patient going into a coma. So how about you wake up now, Dave?"
Oh. So it really was a coma. That was good news, ironically enough. As long as he wasn't permanently dead there was a chance for him to get out of here.
"No? Alright, I can wait. I'm just as stubborn as you are."
"I know." On impulse Dave reached out, wanting desperately to touch. As soon as his fingers connected with Nelson's shoulder, however, he disappeared. He had a few scant seconds to get over the jarring sight, before Nelson showed up again, a few steps away.
"Rachel told me you broke up," he said. "Is that what this was about? She dumped you, and you went climbing all distracted and messed up?"
"She had finally gotten over her guilt about her father's death, and then you spring this on her. Now she's convinced it's all her fault, that you weren't paying attention due to being upset over her breaking up with you. So you really, really need to wake up soon. For her sake."
That... hurt to hear. But at the same time it didn't quite match up with what had happened between him and Rachel. It took a moment for it to click, but when the realization hit it hurt a lot more. This was Nelson, the master manipulator. Trying to goad him into waking up, using the one thing Nelson thought he cared about the most.
"I'm so sorry," Dave said quietly. "If I knew how to wake up, I would. And there'd be no need for you to use Rachel as an incentive — I would've done it when you asked, Nelson."
But Nelson didn't hear him, of course. The disappointment when, minutes later, he vanished made Dave feel like screaming.
"Joe's almost done, now. He only has a couple of women left to talk with, and then he will have confessed and apologized to everyone. I helped him find one yesterday. She had moved, and finding her new phone number proved to be a real pain. But whatever, it's not like I have anything better to do."
"Hey, hey," Dave admonished, "except talk to me, you mean!"
Truth be told, it was good to hear that Nelson wasn't isolating himself. After the end of their experiment, Nelson had been worryingly withdrawn for several days — culminating in him announcing that he'd be taking some time off school. He would be back next term, he'd claimed.
'Your suspension will be over by then, so we can both start up again at the same time. Right, David?'
That was what he'd said. It was funny, because right till that moment, Dave had been unsure about returning. But as soon as Nelson had spoken those words, he'd known it was the right thing to do.
It'd been a month since then, and he had finally started to realize what was right in other aspects of his life, as well.
Too bad this was how it had all ended.
But that was a pessimistic, lousy attitude to have. He was stronger than that. Shaking his head, he focused on Nelson and waited for him to continue speaking.
"Oh, that's right, your neighbor says hi. I don't know her name... Mm, in her fifties? Black hair, kinda short. Anyway, I ran into her this morning and she asked about you."
Dave raised his eyebrows. "How do you two know each other? I mean, how would she know to ask about me, if you just randomly met somewhere?"
"I think she might've been worried you had moved out, and that I was the new tenant. Probably didn't look my best," he added, letting out a low laugh that somehow managed to sound completely devoid of mirth.
"Wait. You were in my apartment?"
As if Nelson had heard, he groaned and muttered a curse. "I just gave myself away, huh? I didn't mean for you to find out. Guess it's suddenly a good thing that you most probably can't hear me." He laughed again, hollow and awful.
"I went there to feed your fishes. Your place is full of stuff, it's so cluttered, messy even..."
"Gee, thanks a lot."
"...I can't explain it, but it feels warm. It feels like a real home."
Dave froze, the slight annoyance he'd felt gone in the blink of an eye.
"My apartment is just empty. You even said so, the first time you were there, remember? I gave you some bullshit about not having the time or the interest in fixing it up; said that all I needed was somewhere to study and a bed to sleep on. In reality, I didn't know what to do with it. My memories of my parents and my home faded over the years — intentionally, in part. It was easier to not remember it once I was at Stoneham."
And there it was, that part of Nelson he never showed to anyone. Dave had gotten to see it a few times, and it always filled him with conflicting emotions. Seeing Nelson let the protective mask slip, ditching the cocky persona for the insecurity and vulnerability that truly lay beneath, made him feel grateful. It meant a lot that Nelson trusted him that much, and was willing to let him in.
But it also broke his heart.
The last time he'd seen Nelson like this was when he'd been about to drive to Bensenville, to see Winnie Hicks, and Nelson had asked if he could come along. 'I don't wanna be alone,' he'd said, and there was nothing Dave would've — or literally could've — denied him at that point.
Maybe the similarities were too strong, or maybe the place he was stuck in simply felt like torturing him some more, because Nelson went from looking normal to looking the way he'd had that day. All bruised and cut up, dark shadows under his red-rimmed and bloodshot eyes, split lips pressing together as if he was trying to physically hold himself in check.
"So I'm sorry, but I've been sleeping at your place. Not everyday, just a few times. Seeing you like this is... hard, because it's like you're not really here at all. It feels different in your apartment, with your things all over — guitar, books, trinkets, plants, even the picture of that damn mountain. Almost feels like you're there with me, you know?"
This was absolutely killing him. Dave wanted to yell and cry, rage against the unfairness of it all, reach out to pull Nelson in for a tight hug, wanted to wake up and do so much more than that, and...
"Hey, David? Can you hear me in there? Or feel me? I'm holding your hand. If you can, just, please, give me a sign. Anything, I don't care. Please? I'm squeezing your hand now."
Dave lifted his hands, staring at them. Useless, worthless hands that felt nothing. "Which one?" he asked, voice breaking. "I can't even tell."
"Wanna know what this reminds me of? Talking to Billy Mahoney. You see, I ran away from Stoneham a couple of times. Maybe I should've gone home to see my parents, but I hated them for letting me be taken away. So I went to the graveyard, to see Billy, instead. He never replied either."
Dave had had just about everything he could take from this fucking bullshit. He was getting out of here, now. "I'm gonna come back for you, Nelson. I promise. Just you wait and see."
"They told me you were the one who brought me back. That you refused to give up, even though I'd been dead for way too long. I had major bruising on my chest from where you punched me, trying to get my heart beating again. Hurt every time I took a breath, but hell, I loved it. It was a reminder that someone cared. That you cared."
"You bet I do."
"It's funny, because it's exactly like I told you, back when it all started. I said that it was you I needed to bring me back. And it was true. So I'm not gonna give up on you, Dave. I need you to do the same. Don't give up, keep fighting. Come back."
"On my way." Dave took one last look at Nelson, before stepping to the very edge of the ridge. He had tried getting closer to the actual peak of the mountain, more than once, but the distance always remained the same no matter how long he walked. So this would have to do.
He couldn't see the bottom, just a growing darkness. It didn't bode well, perhaps, but it was the only way out. And he had to try.
Dave took a step forward and fell into the void.
The world was bright and loud. He could suddenly feel too much at once, sensations that he'd forgotten all about suddenly crowding him. He caught a glimpse of Nelson between the hovering doctors and nurses, and that was enough for the rising panic to settle. He let himself relax, soon drifting into a dreamless sleep.
Nelson made himself scarce during the following days. Dave saw him a grand total of twice, and both times were with the rest of the gang. He didn't say much, simply hanging back and letting the others do the talking.
The only time he really reacted was when Steckle asked if Dave had seen or heard anything during the coma. And if you didn't know what you were looking for, his reaction would've passed you by. But Dave knew to look, and so the way Nelson tensed up and stared intently at the floor didn't escape his notice.
He hated lying to them after everything they'd been through together, but this was deeply personal. For both him and Nelson. Thinking of it that way made it easier to claim that he couldn't remember anything from the moment he'd gone climbing, not even the accident itself — that was true, at least. He still had no idea what had really happened to him, and probably never would. In the end, it didn't matter a whole lot. The result was what was truly important.
But the sudden distance between them was really getting under his skin, and that was why he decided to check himself out early. After signing a few forms, he cornered a nurse he didn't know — he needed an unfamiliar face, because if it was someone he knew they'd probably just roll their eyes and tell him to make the call himself. Which was a big no, as he wasn't entirely sure Nelson would say yes if it was him doing the asking.
"If you could just tell him that I need someone to pick me up, that'd be great. I'd really appreciate it."
The nurse pursed her lips as she stared at the slip of paper he'd handed her, as if Nelson's phone number was particularly puzzling. "This is the blond guy, right?"
"Uh, yeah. Why?"
"Just wondering why you didn't tell him last night. Or were you asleep the whole time he was here?"
Dave stared. "Wait a sec. He was here?"
"Oh, sorry, I thought you knew. He came in late last night, and stayed till just before the sun rose. So he probably hasn't gotten many hours of sleep," she added, glancing at her watch. "Is it a long drive? No falling asleep behind the wheel, you hear?"
"No, of course not," Dave managed to force out. "We'll be real careful. It's just a short drive."
"Okay, good. I'll call, you go rest until he comes."
Dave smiled at her before walking back to his bed. He lay down to stare blankly at the ceiling. He was trying real hard to not get his hopes up, but that was starting to get increasingly difficult. All he could do was wait and see; he would talk to Nelson tonight and get everything out in the open, no matter what.
"Making a break for it, huh? Can't say I blame you."
Dave blinked. He must've dozed off. It didn't feel like he'd been asleep for very long, though — and one look at Nelson confirmed that. His clothes were a wrinkly mess, and his hair was sticking up every which way, as if he'd simply rolled outta bed and rushed straight out the door.
'Endearing' didn't even begin to cover it. "Hi," he said, sitting up and giving Nelson the warmest smile he could. "Thanks for coming."
Nelson looked slightly taken aback. "Yeah, sure, not a problem. Here, I brought you some clothes."
"Thanks, man. It'll be nice to get out of this damn hospital gown."
"I figured as much. I swung by your place on the way over to pick them up. I just grabbed the first things I got my hands on so I hope they're fine."
"Sure are, you even grabbed my leather jacket." Dave was grinning as he began changing, partly because he was glad to get out of here, but mainly because Nelson actually turned around to look the other way.
"And in case you're wondering how I got in, I picked up your personal belongings a while back."
"Oh, that's good, then we don't need to waste time doing that now." Dave shrugged on the jacket and moved forward, giving Nelson a friendly pat on the back. "I'm ready, let's go."
Nelson apparently felt he needed to say more on the subject, as he hurriedly continued while they made their way out of the building. "I only took your stuff in order to get your keys. I didn't think you wanted to have your truck remain parked by the area you went climbing, so..." he trailed off as they went through the front doors, inclining his head towards the road. Dave's truck stood there, waiting.
"You picked up my truck!" He jogged up to it, letting his hand run along the canvas and down the stickers by the door.
"Yes, Dave, your little penguin sticker is safe and sound." His tone of voice was teasing, but there was nothing but fondness in his eyes as he came up alongside Dave.
"Hey, EDF is no joking matter."
"Uh-huh, so you've told me a hundred times. Come on, get in the car. The other side — I'm driving."
The drive was spent in companionable silence. Dave was busy thinking, so that suited him just fine. It seemed like Nelson wasn't going to mention having been in his apartment aside from quickly picking up the clothes.
He would have to come up with something, though, to explain why Dave's fishes and plants were still alive.
"Here you are. Do you want me to call someone to keep you company? I'm sure Rachel would come in a second if you asked."
...Or Nelson could be simply planning to escape before their miraculous survival could even be discovered. It was like he'd switched personalities from one minute to the next, going from relaxed and happy to stiff and distant.
"If I wanted Rachel to keep me company then I would've had her come pick me up," he replied. "But I didn't."
Nelson frowned. "Are you sure you'll be okay alone, then? I don't know if it's such a good idea, but if you're dead set on it..."
Dave resisted the urge to sigh. For someone so smart, Nelson really had a knack for being dense at times. "No, Nelson, I'm not dead set on being alone. Come with me inside, will you?"
Eyes widening, Nelson slowly turned to look at him. "Me? Uh, I — sorry, I can't. I have some important things I need to do at home."
Bullshit. But Dave wasn't about to give up without a fight. "Alright. Can I come?"
It looked like Nelson was too floored to protest. He simply mumbled an intelligible reply and started the truck up again.
The silence was less enjoyable this time around. Dave was getting a bit antsy by the time they walked into Nelson's apartment, mind spinning trying to come up with the best possible way to get the conversation going again.
"Damn, this place really is empty."
Turned out his mind could debate all it wanted, but it was no match for his idiotic mouth that just went ahead and blurted out whatever the hell it wanted. He could kick himself.
Nelson had stiffened, hand freezing halfway on its way to hanging up his trench coat. "Oh. You remember saying that before." He finished putting away his coat and then held out his hand for Dave's jacket. He took it off and handed it over.
"No," Dave said, very slowly, "I don't, actually. But I remember you saying it, a couple of days ago."
"You..." Nelson trailed off as the jacket slipped from his fingers. He'd gone very pale.
"Yeah. I heard you, Nelson. I heard everything you said."
For a while it seemed like he wouldn't reply. Then he visibly composed himself, and said, "Congrats on the scientific discovery. It's not as astounding as our previous one, of course, but it's still of major significance."
Dave scoffed. "I don't give a damn about that, and you know it."
Nelson's eyes narrowed, mouth setting into a grim line. "Fine. Is that why you're here, then? Because you felt sorry for me? That's what this is about? Well, here's a newsflash for you," he snarled, "I don't want your pity, Dave, and I sure as hell don't need you to be here."
"But I do!" Dave snapped. Nelson only stared, silent, making him feel like an idiot. He sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. "Look... I heard you, but you didn't hear me. There were so many things I wanted to say to you, so many things I wanted to do, but I couldn't."
Dave would've closed the distance between them and showed him, had he been a braver man. As it was, merely talking was hard enough. "You thought Rachel broke up with me. That's not true."
"You're still together?"
"What? No! I mean, I'm the one who called it off. She's my friend and I care for her, but it was never love. Being with her was... about something else, someone else, and it just took me a while to realize that. But I did, in the end."
Nelson bent down and picked up Dave's jacket. And then he just stood there, quiet and still, clutching it so tightly that his knuckles went white.
"Hearing you during my coma really cinched it, but I knew it already when I went climbing. I was trying to think of a way to tell you. To ask you, if you — if you maybe felt..."
"I could tell Rachel had a thing for you," Nelson mumbled. He sounded lost in thought, and his eyes were still focused on Dave's jacket. "That's why I pursued her. When that failed I think I tried telling myself that what I felt was jealousy and bitterness that she chose you over me, but that wasn't it at all."
Dave swallowed. He'd heard all he needed to hear. He moved forward, carefully taking the jacket from Nelson's death grip and letting it fall to the floor. He finally looked up, gaze meeting Dave's.
It took him a couple of heartbeats to respond to the kiss, but when he did, it was with the kind of desperate eagerness that spoke volumes. Dave was more than happy to let him take the lead, yielding willingly when Nelson pushed him up against the wall.
Turned out that all the daydreams and fantasies he'd had about Nelson's lips had nothing on the real thing. They kissed for minutes or hours, Dave losing track of time completely. And when Nelson shoved his knee between his legs, nudging his erection, he lost a lot more than that.
He leaned against Nelson, shuddering and panting. "Been a while," he croaked.
Nelson chuckled and gently nuzzled the side of Dave's neck. "If you say so."
"Hey, I was in a coma."
Dave twisted his head to shut up that smart-ass mouth with a thorough kiss. "Do you have a pair of pants I can borrow?" he asked as they broke apart.
"Sure, but who says you need any?"
Laughing, Dave let himself be dragged to the bed.
The mountain was still the same.
The sky remained an impenetrable gray, with no sun in sight. He was alone, frighteningly alone. The mountain loomed in the distance, somehow looking both sinister and darkly amused. Like it was mocking him, somehow.
"Nelson?" he called, even though he already knew he'd get no answer.
Dave dropped to his knees. He couldn't breathe. Was this reality? Was he back, or had he never left in the first place? Had everything, between waking up in the hospital and falling asleep in Nelson's arm, been a dream? Making love, showering together, falling in bed wet and laughing... none of that had been real? Just wishful thinking, one final dream before dying?
The vast openness was closing in on him. Nelson wasn't here. He couldn't breathe.
The mountain began to shake as Dave curled in on himself and screamed.
"David! Wake up, it's okay, I'm right here."
Dave opened his eyes. Nelson was hovering above him, his hands gripping Dave's shoulders hard enough for it to hurt. The moonlight from the windows shone in, turning Nelson's golden hair into shimmering silver. He'd never looked more beautiful.
"Nelson?" he whispered.
"Yeah, it's me." He let go of Dave's shoulders, hands trailing up to gently stroke his cheeks — only then did he realize he'd been crying. "That was some dream, huh? Really did a number on you."
There was a question in his words, but no demand. Dave appreciated that.
He closed his eyes again and leaned into Nelson's touch. "I was dreaming that I was back in the same place I was during the coma."
"...And now you're not sure what's real or not."
Sometimes Nelson was really way too clever for his own good.
"Forget about it, it's nothing. I'm fine."
Nelson lay down again, slinging an arm across Dave's waist and pulling him in close. "Okay. But if you're not, and you think it's like before — as in you need to make amends — then I'll come with you." His fingers began tracing little swirly patterns over Dave's skin, the touch warm and soothing. "We can apologize to the mountain for hitting it with your head, and for bleeding on it."
Dave snorted, unable to keep from smiling. "You're such a jerk sometimes."
"Maybe," Nelson replied, humming softly, "but I do mean it. I'll do whatever it takes to prove to you that this is reality."
Dave glanced at him. He looked utterly and completely sincere. And he was still breathtakingly beautiful.
He pulled Nelson in for a slow, languid kiss. "Just stay with me," he murmured.
"Wasn't planning on going anywhere."
Nelson's apartment looked a lot less empty with their clothes strewn haphazardly all over the place. It was the second thing Dave noticed that morning, right after taking in the sight of Nelson sleeping. He'd held Dave throughout the night, and no more dreams had come.
Nelson was still there, and so was he.
Smiling, Dave leaned down and set about waking him.